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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 14, 1979. Interview C-0013-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Pragmatic efforts at integration

Spaulding dismisses the Commission on Interracial Cooperation as "do-gooders." He sees his own efforts at fostering interracial harmony as much more pragmatic and effective, and cites some of the concrete measures of progress his efforts yielded, including the desegregation of public facilities. As he remembers these efforts, Spaulding reflects on the importance of courage in accomplishing change.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 14, 1979. Interview C-0013-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
To summarize: it began in the thirties when you came back and you were concerned about violence coming up. Was there violence here in the thirties?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, there were some strike breakers that were brought here at some of the strikes, and tensions were pretty high. I don't remember that anyone was killed. But there was violence. So this is the first time this has ever been told, in the way that it is being told. But things were just done. Of course, news accounts of what happened were in the paper. And people came to know it. And I think that's one of things for whatever respect I have been able to build in the community. These are the things that help contribute to it.
WALTER WEARE:
Did any of this filter down, do you think?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Oh, I'm sure it improved relations. Oh, yes, it improved relations. We wouldn't have the blacks in public offices that we have today if it hadn't been…things don't just happen overnight, you know.
WALTER WEARE:
Was this also part of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation? Was that their ideals?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
They had one, but I don't remember anything that they did that had a lasting effect, really. They had a lot of what they refer to as ‘do-gooders’. My approach was not to invite a few people, except to that luncheon thing, you know. The thirty or forty people who would meet in the directors' room to hear the person speak, the leaders in the community, to come if you want to and not if you don't want to. But they always came.
WALTER WEARE:
You gave them something attractive.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I had a magnet.
WALTER WEARE:
It would appear then with North Carolina Mutual and the leaders, that whites did not see all blacks alike in Durham.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
North Carolina Mutual has made a contribution to this city, state, and nation, that's immeasurable. There's no way you can measure it. Because of the leadership it has provided in all activities. You know, when they first organized the United Fund in Durham, blacks were excluded. They didn't even solicit blacks. George Cox, who was agency director—you know that story.
WALTER WEARE:
Go ahead, though.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
All right. He got solicited all of the officers of North Carolina Mutual and some of the key people in the bank and things of that nature, and collected, I think it was seven hundred dollars. I don't know what the amount was, but I think it was seven hundred dollars thereabouts. And they were having a hard time raising their goal. And he took it over to the office and laid it on the table. He said, "Here's a contribution." [interruption] From then on Negroes were invited to participate in the United Fund campaigns.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
The result was when the first mayor's committee was appointed, I was appointed as a member. And when the committee met, I was elected as vice-chairman of the mayor's committee, which I held until the… there was something that intervened; I don't recall what it was now. But anyway, then I was appointed the first black member of the board of adjustment.
WALTER WEARE:
This committee you're speaking of, the mayor's committee: what was the full title of the committee?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I don't recall if it was called ‘human relations’ at that time: mayor's committee on human relations.
WALTER WEARE:
This was in the early sixties?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. I served thirteen years on the city board of zoning. But anyway, these things as a result of what I had done in these interracial matters, they considered me a natural for the mayor's committee, for the early sixties. And I was still on that committee when we opened the public accommodations with Watts Hill's assistance. He [unclear] came in and was appointed a member, too. I believe Watts Carr ran for mayor, and I don't recall whether was appointed and won, or not. I think that's the way it was. And Watts Carr was—I don't recall whether he had been appointed to the commission, and was on it, or whether [unclear] appointed him. But anyway, the question came up as to whether or not he was going to stay on the committee, on the commission. And I told him one of the best ways, if he really wanted to make a contribution to the community and its pulling together, is not let your disappointment in losing your race prevent you from continuing to serve. That was a thing that changed his attitude and caused him to stay. I said, in so many words, between the lines, that not to do it would show that you are a little man; to do it would show your bigness. And that resulted in his continuing on. And then when Watts Hill came in, I remember we had the meeting and we were talking about it. And we saw what had happened in Alabama. I said now, "Durham likes to call itself ‘the friendly city’. Do we want to put a premium on violence? Or do we want to be smart and provide leadership? If we keep on letting violence force us to do things, we're putting a premium on it. Because people get to thinking that the only way you're going to make any progress, or bring about change, is through violence. But if we want to be smart, we'll take the leadership and bring about change without this having to happen." And we all bought it. Watts Hill, you know, once he decides to do anything, he rolls up his sleeves and goes at it. And, you see, he owned the hotel, he and his family. So he rolled up his sleeves. And he curses a lot, you know. He said, "Goddammit, we can't let these things happen here that happened in these other cities. We've got to straighten this thing out." And so we went to work on it. And within a matter of weeks, we had all the public accommodations open except the theatre. It was the last stronghold we had to break through. And we broke that through. So we prevented things happening here. And I don't remember if it was before that or after that that I was appointed to the city board of adjustment. I told you about John Barry, and my nominating him to be chairman of the board of adjustment. But I don't claim credit for the things that happened. But it's like Abram Harriman said, "It's not given to any man to complete the things; but it's given to every man to make a contribution." And this was a contribution that I was in a position to make. Both as being one of the major officers of North Carolina Mutual and the calibre of people I was able to bring into the community. And meeting together, and finding that they could come and we could sit down and talk together or eat together, and that the heavens wouldn't fall. You know, if it's something new, and you don't know what's going to happen. I remember when the Woolworth's store decided to open its counter, they had all kinds of dire predictions that it would put them out of business. And that first week, when they opened them, and blacks went in there and started eating, they were really nervous. And I think they were sincere. I mean, I think they were afraid that they would lose their white customers. But they didn't. Some may have stayed away, but gradually they came back, and nobody's thought anything about it since. So sometimes all it requires is the courage of leadership to bring about change. And that was my great disappointment in my first effort that I made in going to the leaders. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
ASA T. SPAULDING:
At that time, and in the community attitudes and all, the only person who could furnish any leadership, and get any followship, would be one of those persons that I contacted. Any my disappointment was that neither of them either had the courage or was willing to take that. And since that didn't, I started using other methods, whatever came along. I told you the story about Moses and the Red Sea, you know, and God asked him, "What's that you have in your hand?" And he said, "A rod." And he said, "Well use it, Moses. You have all you need to divide the Red Sea. Stretch it out over." So, I remembered that in every position I've been in, every opportunity. I looked upon my being there as something in my hand to use for the benefit of others. And when I succeeded C.C. Spaulding on the board of trustees, I felt I'm in a position, and I have a connection that I can use to bring people to here, to help open the windows of their minds, and the souls of these young people. To help see the outside world and breathe fresh air of the outside world. So, step by step, in every capacity.